Australian Province Jesuit Fr Richard Shortall was one of 1000 Missionaries of Mercy, priests sent out by Pope Francis during the Jubilee Year of Mercy (8 December 2015 – 20 November 2016) to be God’s presence of love and forgiveness to those in need.
With a ministry involving travelling in a motorhome around Maitland-Newcastle Diocese to visit parish areas that didn’t have a resident priest, or even a presbytery, and spend time with the parishioners, Fr Shortall was informally dubbed the ‘Missionary of Mercy on wheels’.
In April 2018, Fr Richard Shortall SJ was one of five Missionaries of Mercy selected to address a gathering of the missionaries in Rome. The text of this ‘witness’, or talk, is reproduced below.
Witness of a Missionary of Mercy on wheels
‘Father, thank you for listening.’ These were words I often heard after sitting with a parishioner in the church. For me, being a Missionary of Mercy was all about listening.
In 2015 when I was given a copy of Misericordiae Vultus [Pope Francis’ bull of indiction proclaiming the Jubilee of Mercy] by a diocesan priest, I was intrigued with what Francis wrote in paragraph 18: ‘During the Year of Mercy I intend to send out Missionaries of Mercy. They will be a sign of the Church’s maternal solicitude for the People of God.’
The more I read these words, the more I felt overwhelmed with the desire to be such a missionary — in the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese, which covers an area of nearly 34,000 square kilometres, north of Sydney; an area almost the size of Belgium.
This diocese decided that during the Jubilee of Mercy I would visit parish communities where there was a church but no resident priest. The idea was that like the settler priests in Australia in the 19th century, who rode around that diocese on horseback, I would camp in a community for a week at a time.
But unlike those pioneer priests, my home would not be a tent, but a mobile home — a camper.
When we gathered here [in Rome] in February 2016, do you remember that huge sign hanging on a building at the Tiber end of the Via del Conciliazione? ‘The Jubilee Opens the Doors! Welcome to an Extraordinary Year.’
During my community visits the doors of the church, which were normally closed, were open wide, indicating that I was seated in the church ready to listen to the stories of anyone who chose to sit down with me.
During these visits of their MOM — as I was called — the parishioners were offered a special opportunity to encounter our kind, all-embracing, welcoming, understanding, merciful God.
In Australia, what was it like for this MOM to move around a diocese in a motorhome, which was parked next to a church and connected to that church’s electricity and water supply?
First, I discovered that what I had undertaken was a manageable task. The motor home was not difficult to drive and the parishioners were willing to help me in all sorts of practical ways. Slowly I grew accustomed to living in the confines of my ‘home on wheels’.
Second, each day I would celebrate the Eucharist with the parishioners, something that usually happened only on a Sunday once or twice a month. During the homily I would speak about the experience of being here with Pope Francis in February 2016.
Do you remember that moment during the Ash Wednesday Audience when Pope Francis alighted from his vehicle and walked to a sick person lying on a stretcher – those gestures, which reminded us of his words in The Name of God is Mercy: ‘God forgives us not with a decree, but with a caress’?
Hearing such stories, parishioners often told me that it was as if Pope Francis was in their community during the week.
Third, the daily experience of sitting in the church, what Pope Francis calls ‘the apostolate of the ear’, was a profound, humbling and privileged one. Whenever I arrived in a community I promised parishioners that I would sit in the church ready to listen with a merciful gaze, open arms, and a welcoming non-judgemental heart to any story of pain, sorrow, disappointment, or heaviness of spirit which they brought to me.
My hope was that in such a conversation they would experience something of God’s closeness to them and God’s forgiving acceptance of them.
Perhaps it was those experiences of suffering — the ones I had known in my own life — which enabled me to provide a safe and caring environment for these conversations.
During my initial reading of Misericordiae Vultus I became firmly convinced that what parishioners in Australia would desire most from the Year of Mercy would be the opportunity to tell their stories. Some would surely want to celebrate the sacrament of Reconciliation, but not all.
So often these conversations would begin with words such as these: ‘Father, I have a secret. It goes back to when I was …’ ‘Father, this is the sorrow of my life …’ ‘Father, will God ever forgive me?’ ‘Father, ours has been a loveless marriage …’
Sometimes, as many as eight people would sit with me during the day. After such full days of listening to such stories of pain, sorrow and deep hurt, I often found it difficult to sleep at night.
Despite at times keenly feeling the weight of these stories, I remained faithful to the daily rhythm of celebrating the Eucharist and sitting in the church. If there were gaps in these times of sitting when no-one came, I would sit, read, pray and … knit!
What a privilege it was to be given this mission. I felt a strong sense of connection with Francis, the Bishop of Rome and my brother Jesuit, as I supported him in his desires for this Jubilee Year of Mercy. It felt so humbling to be entrusted with the untold stories of so many parishioners and to be a witness to what happened as they told me their stories.
Many parishioners in this part of Australia were able to experience anew the mercy of God because of this creative initiative of Pope Francis.
When I completed my ministry as a Missionary of Mercy in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle at the end of 2017, I realised that it was as if God had created me, 66 years ago, with the express purpose of having me come to that diocese as its own MOM.
I now believe that this was God’s plan from the beginning of my life, and my whole life was a preparation for being a Missionary of Mercy — at that particular time and in that place.